We all want our children to be confident in themselves and in their body. Unfortunately, body insecurities are often learned as kids navigate our society and messages about what a “right” body is. And they pick up on these things at a young age. Children as young as three years old are seen engaging with negative attitudes about their own body and the bodies of others. As a parent, it can be alarming to hear your child start to express negative feelings about their body...and hard to know how to react.
If your child told you “I feel fat,” how would you respond?
You might find yourself reflexively wanting to change the subject.
You might rush to denial: “Don’t say that! You’re not fat!”
Or maybe you try to reason with them: “According to the BMI chart, your body is normal”
Or offer solutions: “Let’s start exercising tomorrow!”
These responses, while well intentioned, can send conflicting messages and confirm the idea that certain bodies are a problem to be fixed. While you likely can’t prevent exposure to weight stigma, you can provide the support for your child to navigate these experiences with confidence. Here are some tools to get you started.
how to respond when your child says "I feel fat"
acknowledge your own bias
Helping your child navigate their relationship with their own body will inevitably have you reflecting on your own. That is important because while society and media play a role in influencing kids' views, their caregivers are the primary influence on their body image.
Pay attention to the comments you make. Do you openly criticize yourself when looking in the mirror? Do you greet friends with compliments on their appearance? Do you offer commentary on how much weight a celebrity gained or lost? If you are speaking disparagingly about your own body or the bodies of others, your child will pick that up and subconsciously form ideas about what bodies are good and which ones are undesirable.
Have compassion for yourself if you become aware of your own weight biases. You too have had to navigate a world not particularly kind. And know that it is possible to cultivate a more inclusive view of bodies. Shifting your own mindset about size and body image will help you to support your child when they bring up concerns.
Fat is not a feeling - fat is a body type! So if your child says they feel fat, they might be trying to say that they feel rejected by peers, feel unwanted or unattractive, or feel uncomfortable with the changes they are experiencing in their body as it grows and develops.
Before anything else, ask questions to understand what feelings and concerns they are trying to express. While you might feel sad that your child is uncomfortable in their body, be careful to not brush away or deny what they are saying. Try not to assume what they may be feeling or thinking.
A few questions you might ask:
“What do you think ‘fat’ means?”
“What makes you say that you are fat?”
“How does that make you feel?”
Providing a non-judgmental space for kids to navigate their body image questions and concerns helps them to know it is ok and normal to feel this way. These conversations can be an opportunity to safely express feelings and learn to relate to their body in a positive way.
A body confident kid acknowledges body diversity and knows their personal worth is independent of their body size.
Let your child know that just like flowers or dogs, bodies also naturally exist in a variety of sizes and shapes and colors! You can celebrate body diversity with them by looking at art, watching shows, and reading books with characters of various sizes. You could read a book together, like Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder, that showcases all the different (and cool!) ways there are to have a body.
You might choose to talk about how the word “fat” is being reclaimed by many larger bodied people as a neutral descriptor of their body size. Fat isn’t good or bad but any word can be used as an insult to hurt someone’s feelings and it is important that we don’t comment negatively on anyone’s body.
Provide reassurance that bodies change. Puberty can be a time of intense body changes and with it feeling of discomfort and confusion. Talk openly with your children about body changes being a natural (and neutral) part of life.
Above all, let your child know, “You are more than your body and I love you just as you are.” Kids need to hear that they are loved unconditionally and their body doesn't earn or lose them your affection.
Know the Signs
What if your child repeatedly expresses negative body image thoughts? What if it starts to affect their eating or exercise habits?
It’s important to know the warning signs of an eating disorder so you can get your child the help they need. Check out this blog post to learn about potential red flags.